About a dozen state and federal officials and University of Hawaii researchers will converge on Waimanalo Thursday morning to begin mapping a new infestation of little fire ants that was discovered last week by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.
"We'll do the survey work to find out the extent of the infestation and then we will come up with a plan and move for eradication," said HDOA Chairman Scott Enright.
The discovery near Kakaina Street comes about four months after 12 sites on Oahu, including three nurseries, were found to be infested with little fire ants in mid-December. Back then, state officials believed it was the first instance of little fire ants being found on Oahu. However, Enright tells KITV4 the most recent infestation in Waimanalo may be several years old.
"Staff at this point thinks that this infestation might be as much as two or three years old, maybe a little bit older," said Enright. "That tells us that the little fire ant was moving around the state on nursery material, we believe, for longer than we had thought."
Prior infestations of little fire ants are believed to have arrived on Oahu on hapuu logs, which are commonly used to plant orchids. According to Department of Agriculture's plant pest control manager Rob Curtiss, all 12 sites were treated and follow-up surveys showed the ants are no longer present.
However, it's unknown how the most recent infestation of little fire ants established itself in Waimanalo. The ants were found to be living in trees after inspectors went to the area to examine a nursery.
"The little fire ant can be carried on construction equipment (and) it could be carried on pallets. I mean it can come on just about anything," explained Enright.
The invasive pest is only one-sixteenth of an inch long, but packs a wallop of a sting.
Some researchers also believe the little fire ant can cause blindness in animals.
"Of course it's a concern, the longer these things go, the harder they are to eradicate," said David Fell, owner of Hawaiian Sunshine Nursery Inc., who operates two locations in Waimanalo and the Big Island.
Fell has been surveying both of his nurseries for little fire ants by placing peanut butter on wooden sticks, and waiting for ants to arrive. Once ants are on a stick, he places it into a Ziploc bag and freezes it before sending it off to the Department of Ag.
"We learned how to put out test sticks and then we asked the Department of Ag to come and check them out," said Fell. "They found that we have lots of different ants, but no fire ants."
According to a recent University of Hawaii study, little fire ants could cause $12.9 billion in economic damage and management expenditures over the next 35 years. The number of stings during the same time period could also reach 3.4 billion.
However, Fell believes state lawmakers were on the wrong track by seeking to possibly levy fines and quarantines against businesses that transport little fire ants or other invasive pests island to island. Senate bill 2347 passed several readings before the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee in the state House recommended the measure be deferred.
"It drives people underground," Fell said of SB 2347. "Nobody is going to stand up and ask for help if they're afraid they're going to be fined or quarantined."
A better course of action says Fell is to get as many people on Oahu and other parts of the state surveying for little fire ants as often as possible.
"I think we'd discover where it is and then we could have an effective course of action to eradicate the problem," he said.
Curtiss told KITV4 the surveying work for little fire ants in Waimanalo will take at about a week, if not longer.
"We're mobilizing our taxonomy staff to try and confirm the ID's," he said. "Once we do that, the Hawaii Ant Lab in Hilo will help determine an eradication plan."
In addition to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and UH researchers, the Oahu Invasive Species Committee and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take part in Thursday's ant mapping.
Anyone wantiing to conduct a survey of little fire ants on their property can send contact information and a sample to the following:
Hawaii Department of Agriculture
16 E. Lanikaula St Hilo, 96720